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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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In this 'Country Church'

Learn more than theology by-the-book

The phrase "summer reading" assumes that you have more time in the summer, which may or may not be true. But now, or whenever you do have time, I suggest you read Open Secrets: A Spiritual Journey Through a Country Church (Doubleday, 2001).

The author is Richard Lischer, an ELCA pastor who teaches at Duke University Divinity School, Durham, N.C. But Lischer hasn't always been an academic, and that is the subject of the book.

He started out in the 1970s, with a doctorate in theology, as a small-town pastor in southern Illinois. There, rather than ponder deep theological issues, he dealt with such problems as rural poverty and farm crises, narrow-mindedness and gossip, infidelity and spousal abuse. (These do, of course, raise deep theological issues.) It's here, in New Cana, a community of eccentric yet universally recognizable "plain folks," that he received his second — perhaps more profound — education.

This isn't an idyllic description of some quaint village whose residents gather for ice-cream socials and band concerts in the park.

Lischer says New Cana "lacked the traditional accessories that make a town picturesque — no courthouse, town square or ivy-covered cottages. The few white picket fences I saw were in disrepair and were obviously placed to keep the chickens in the yard."

Lischer learned how to be a pastor the hard way. Nor did he avoid personal problems, including one that all clergy face: competition for time between church life and family or private life.

Yet through all this, Lischer maintained a sense of humor that is one of the book's most prominent and appealing features. The advertising material lauds his "style reminiscent of Garrison Keillor." I suppose that description will sell more books. But the reference is unfortunate because Lischer has his own style and voice — unique and refreshing.


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